The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, by Josiah Ober

P. J. Rhodes on a study investigating how the ancient civilisation reached its zenith

July 23, 2015
Book review: The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, by Josiah Ober

“The glory that was Greece” has long been much admired, but how did the Greeks achieve that glory, and what happened afterwards? Political scientist and Classics scholar Josiah Ober has until now focused mainly on how people were involved in the Athenian democracy, but in this book he addresses those more fundamental questions. His answer is that between 800 and 300 BC the Greeks’ cultural achievement was supported by sustained economic growth, and that economic growth was in turn supported by an exceptionally participatory mode of politics.

Much of the world’s history has been dominated by forms of centralised authority, from despotic empires to nation states. But classical Greece enjoyed a particularly extensive and long-lasting form of dispersed authority, with 1,000 or more separate city states across the Mediterranean world, and in the individual states cooperative rule was shared among the citizens. Although geography and climate favoured this dispersal, they do not in themselves explain why the Greeks were so successful at that time but not at others. What the classical Greeks managed to do was develop forms of specialisation combined with cooperation and exchange, which fostered a remarkable cultural efflorescence, and it persisted even after the political rise of the Macedonian warlords.

Aristotle believed that the right kinds of institution could steer human beings towards beneficial cooperation rather than selfish rivalry. Both Plato’s image of ants around a pond, and the modern-day scientific study of ants, point to the multiple exchange of information as a basis for success. Human beings, unlike ants, can accumulate and build on experience, and Ober argues that the Greeks developed sufficient motivation to cooperate within and between their states without compulsion from an authoritarian enforcer.

Against widespread assumptions to the contrary, Ober insists that on the best available estimates classical Greece was more populous and urbanised, with a higher proportion of its population living above bare subsistence level, and a more equal distribution of property, than Greece at most other times in its history and than most other pre-modern societies. And he attributes that to fair rules and an ethos that encouraged innovation.

He analyses the development of Greece out of the dark age of c.1000 BC, and in particular the great cities of Sparta, Athens and Syracuse, in the light of that hypothesis. In the 5th century BC, the Athenians were innovative and adaptable, and developed an empire that benefited other Greeks too. In the first half of the 4th century BC, no city was able to dominate, but Athens tempered its democracy with greater use of experts. Philip II of Macedon succeeded where the Persians had failed, as an autocratic ruler on the edge of the Greek world who harnessed Greek developments for his own purposes. But the Hellenistic era that followed was not one of domination and Greek decline, but one in which an equilibrium of plural warlords, fortified cities and democratic regimes that kept the support of elite citizens allowed the Greek efflorescence to continue – until it was taken over by the Roman Empire and then the Byzantine Empire, and therefore preserved as a model that can still inspire us.

Ober has absorbed the thinking and the language of social science, but I am not sure that the ancient Greeks employed cost–benefit analysis to the extent that he assumes. Beyond that, I can accept that open regimes are more conducive to certain kinds of development than authoritarian regimes, but we are still left wondering why the Greeks achieved that at this time but not at others, and how far modern China will succeed in squaring Ober’s circle.

P. J. Rhodes is honorary and emeritus professor of ancient history, Durham University.


The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece
By Josiah Ober
Princeton University Press, 464pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691140919 and 9781400865550 (e-book)
Published 29 May 2015

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